By Harry McCracken | Monday, June 7, 2010 at 6:30 am
Major development this morning: The iPad can finally print! But this breakthrough isn’t being unveiled at Apple’s WWDC keynote. Apple can’t take any credit for it, either–and actually, the news also involves the iPhone, Android phones, BlackBerrys, other smartphones, and other devices that do e-mail and file attachments.
This Monday-morning eye-opener is being announced by HP printing honcho V.J. Joshi at an event in New York. It’s a new feature called ePrint that HP is building into a trio of all-in-one printers. The goal is audacious: enable printing from gadgets that have no built-in support for printing, without requiring so much as installing an app. It’s a logical one for HP to pursue, given that devices that can’t print can’t help consumers use up ink. And the way HP did it is surprisingly simple: It built drivers into the printers themselves, and gave them Wi-Fi networking and e-mail addresses.
To print a document–like a photo, a PDF, or a Microsoft Office-format file–you e-mail it to the unique e-mail address associated with an ePrint-capable printer. It receives the message, detaches the file, and prints it. You can also e-mail attachments to the printers from a PC or Mac, bypassing the computer’s driver; people who bring these printers into their homes or workplaces will presumably want to print the old-fashioned way, but ePrinting might be handy in transient-printing scenarios such as at hotel business centers.
Are there security issues here? Well, you won’t want to print anything you’re not comfortable sending as an unencrypted file attachment. There may also be some risk of spammers trying to target printers’ e-mail addresses with junk documents. But HP assigns printers randomly-generated e-mail addresses which it says will be hard for spammers to determine, and lets you set a printer up so that it’ll only accept e-mail from whitelisted addresses which you specify.
ePrint doesn’t make lack of printer support in devices such as the iPad a non-issue. For one thing, it’s available on a grand total of four printers from one company. There’s no way to specify options, so it’s plain-vanilla, quick-and-dirty printing. And if there’s no way to get something into a file attachment, there’s still no way to print. Want to print a Web page from an iPhone or an iPad? The best you can do is to create a screen grab, then print that. But what HP has come up with is still ingenious and useful.
The new printers, which HP calls “e-All-in-Ones,” include the $99 Photosmart, the $149 Photosmart Plus, the $199 Photosmart Premium, and the $299 Photosmart Premium with Fax. All four build on features introduced last year in the original Photosmart Premium With TouchSmart Web, an all-in-one printer with an iPhone-like touchscreen interface and the ability to run apps that print out content such as maps, crossword puzzles, coupons, and coloring pages directly from the Web. All the new models can access the existing apps and new ones which HP is introducing with partners such as Crayola, but only the $199 Premium has the sexy 4.3″ touchscreen. The other versions all have smaller screens with more prosaic user interfaces; I get the sense that HP thinks that people are interested in printer apps, but aren’t willing to pay a premium for an extravagant interface.
In a real sense, the new Photosmarts (some of which won’t all be available until September) are autonomous networked computers that happen to be dedicated to the task of printing. And the HP executives who briefed me on today’s news were up-front that these first models just scratch the surface of the idea. HP is already saying its buyout of Palm will let it build printers that run Palm’s powerful Web OS, and the execs I talked to spoke of possibilities such as customized newspapers that automatically print from the Web every morning, so they’re ready to grab from the paper tray when you wake up.
There’s huge potential in the concept of Web-based services talking directly to a printer without a PC serving as middleman, especially since browsers are notoriously lousy at printing. If HP builds on this idea, it’ll enable scenarios such as Web-based office suites being able to send richly-formatted documents directly to the printer, or Webmail clients that can automatically print certain messages based on rules you specify. Pretty cool, potentially–especially if ePrint-like features end up being standard equipment in all sorts of printers from all sorts of companies.